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“Native grasses shatter very readily on the head so we try to be as gentle as possible with the swather, and that is why we prefer a draper headers.”
If you ever find yourself driving on the Canadian Prairies on a frigid January day – you know, the kind of day where the windchill clocks in at –45C (-49F) and exposed flesh freezes in less than a minute – take a moment to think about the first homesteaders to call this land home. Imagine what their first years must have been like. How hard was it to break the land? Get their homes up? Put a crop in the ground? Or gather enough provisions and fuel to survive that first winter, especially on days like that.
“What they did is probably heroic by today’s standards,” said Kevin Blight whose great-grandfather George homesteaded their Manitoba farm back in 1890. “Today we take so much for granted: electricity, automobiles or power equipment. Not having those three things would bring a lot of people today to their knees if they had to do without them, so imagine homesteading
without any of them.”
Located a half-mile (0.8km) north of the Trans-Canada Highway, between Winnipeg and Portage la Prairie, the Blight farm remains a family operation with Kevin (56), his brother Kam (43) and father Jim (79) sharing in the duties. Together they farm about 3,200 acres (1295ha) of soybeans, corn, fall rye, spring wheat, plus a final category of crops that would surely have left their great grandfather scratching his head because he would have worked so hard to get rid of them when he first broke the farm’s land – native grasses.
The Blights are just one of a handful of native grass growers in Western Canada, as the labor intensive, high risk nature of the crop can shy most farmers away from the business. “Right now for native grasses we are growing green needlegrass, western wheatgrass, switchgrass, big bluestem, blue grama and sideoats grama,” said Blight. “We’re constantly trying new ones, taking out old ones and just experimenting.”
Approximately 70% of the Blights’ native grass seed is exported to the United States to be sold in blends for use by golf courses, highway departments, reclamation projects, land developers and even homeowners who want to use it as a lawn alternative. The remaining 30% goes to the oil and gas industry, primarily in places like Alberta, where pipeline projects are required to restore the land to its natural state after installing a new line.
“We first got into native grasses in 1988. Ducks Unlimited of Manitoba was using native grasses in some of its projects and they were looking for a local producer as they were importing their seed from the United States. At that time there was no local production.”
In that first pioneering year the Blights quickly discovered that they had a lot to learn about the crop.
“When we first started growing native grasses there was no book to pick up on how to grow native grasses in Canada, or in Manitoba. Almost everything that we know today we learned through trial and error.”
One of the first important lessons they received was that native grasses don’t flow like regular grain when combining. When they turned on the combine’s unloading auger that first season, nothing came out.
“Native grass seeds are so light and chaffy that they readily bridge in the hopper. They were developed by Mother Nature to float away in the wind or get stuck in the hooves of animals, so they tend to result in a very light sample. They can also have very long tails so what ends up in the hopper looks more like a bird’s nest than grain.”
“To overcome challenges like that we tend to think outside the box a fair bit. Most of our equipment that we use with the native grasses has been built by us, or modified in some way. For example, we’ve had to modify our cleaning equipment to handle the smaller lighter seeds.It’s a slower process because in native grasses we talk pounds per acre, not bushels.”
Blight says that harvest volume is dependent on the species with some yielding as much as 500 pounds (227kg) an acre, while others might yield only 100 pounds (45kg). Despite the amount, the one constant is that the final product must be completely clean as most of their customers have no tolerance for weeds.
“Some of the weed seeds are almost impossible to separate with the cleaners, so when your customers have a zero tolerance policy you need to have nice clean fields to begin with.”
The Blights will start preparing a field two or three years before it is sown as a grass field, burning it off with Roundup both pre-harvest and post-harvest to achieve the zero tolerance benchmark. Once a field is in production, they will even have employees walk a field during swathing to pull anything that doesn’t belong. Blight says that the weeds that are the most difficult to control are other grasses such as quackgrass or smooth brome.
Beyond the concerns of ensuring a clean field, harvesting stress is amped up with native grasses because of the importance of marketing them as pure live seed.
“If the seed doesn’t germinate, you don’t get paid. For example, if we have 100 pounds (45kg) of cleaned seed with a germination of 90 and a purity of 90, then we are only going to get paid for 81 pounds (37kg). So we put a lot of consideration into making sure that we don’t damage the germination, whether it is by handling the seed or by harvesting it too early.”
Knowing precisely when to harvest each one of their grass crops requires constant vigilance, with the Blights checking their fields twice a day when it gets close to harvest.
“Our timing is critical because native grasses can drop their seed in a matter of hours. You want the seed to mature as much as possible, but you don’t want to wait too long because if there is a wind you can lose everything. Last year we had a devastating hail storm go through. It went over the farm right at swathing time for one of our varieties, so we lost a good portion of the seed. The hail didn’t damage the plant but it knocked a large percentage of the seed off. A hard wind or rain can do the same thing. It can happen very easily.”
Blight admits that they have “tried every manner of harvesting” in their almost 30 years with native grasses.
“We’ve always come back to swathing because when we straight combine or strip the seed it is more difficult to get the moisture down. By swathing it, even for a couple of days, you can get the moisture down in the seed where it is more manageable in storage. That’s really the biggest reason.”
To swath such a delicate crop the Blights depend on their two MacDon windrowers (the newest an M155 purchased in 2016) mounted with 20’ (6.1m) D Series headers, plus MacDon PW8 pick-up headers on their combines because they have found the PW8’s twin-draper design works best in native grasses.
“Native grasses shatter very readily on the head so we try to be as gentle as possible with the swather, and that is why we prefer draper headers. We sometimes combine at .9 mph (1.4 kph), so slow that some people on the TransCanada will stop to see if we are actually moving. We get lots of joking remarks regarding our lack of field speed.”
Beyond speed, Blight says that some of the prairie grasses are a challenge to harvest simply because of how high they grow.
“When I say tall I’m not exaggerating – they can grow over eight feet (2.4m). The first time I pulled the swather into a grass field that tall I was holding my breath wondering how it was going to work out. I couldn’t see anything. The M155 performs very well in a crop that high.”
“After many years of harvesting grass seed you learn the little tricks and what works best for each variety. Everything from setting the implement to the timing of what you are doing.”
Blight says that working with such unique, time sensitive and finicky crops as native grasses just underscores how important it is to have a swather that you can rely on.
“That’s why we moved to the MacDons in the first place. MacDon equipment is built to operate in what we would call tough conditions. More important, MacDon knows what they do well and they build on that. As a customer that gives me a lot of confidence in their product.”
“The native grass seed industry is definitely not for the faint of heart. Because it is small acreage crop, it is ineligible for crop insurance. The markets can also swing wildly from one year to the next. On our farm, however, we tend to view risk as an opportunity. Others tend to get into the business and then get out of it.”
And for the Blights there is also a deep satisfaction in growing and discovering the traits of plants unaltered by the breeding practices of man.
“We have a lot of respect for many of these species. Some of them are just tremendous grasses – they are very long lived. They are not just trying to produce as much seed as they can in a single season and then be done. They are in it for the long term and are very deep rooted. In fact, we are still cropping fields that were sown in the early 90s, and they are still producing well for us. We really don’t know how long they can go, I guess we’ll see.”